Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 518, 1 June 2022

Denmark: Referendum favours to be a part of EU defence policy
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 1 June, Denmark voted in favour of a historic referendum to end the 30-year opt-out from the EU defence and security policy. The Danes approval rate came to 65.8 per cent which is considered the highest, but it witnessed the second-lowest attendance. According to prime minister Mette Frederiksen: “Tonight, Denmark has sent a very important signal — to our allies in Europe, and to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin. We show that when Putin invades a free country and threatens the stability of Europe, so we others move closer together.”

On the same day, president of the European Council, Charles Michel said: “The people of Denmark have made a historic choice. The world has changed since Russia invaded Ukraine. This decision will benefit Europe and make both the EU and the Danish people safer and stronger.”

Issues at large
First, Denmark’s practice of opt-outs. The Danish opt-out called “retsforbehold” contains four relaxations from the EU integration. It started with the Danish voting against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, opting out from using Euro, fearing the change from Danish Kroner to Euro, non-participation in the Euro cooperation, and defence opt-out where Denmark will not engage in EU’s military operations or decision-making processes. Apart from the Euro and defence, it also introduced legal reservations on laws relating to bankruptcy, and asylum standards and voted against the EU citizenship. In the other referendums held by Denmark in the 2000s and 2015 on adopting the Euro and on Justice and Home Affairs, the majority of the population voted no.

Second, the Lisbon v. Washington treaty. Article 42.7 Lisbon Treaty necessitates its member states to aid each other at the time of any invasion or aggression. Article 5 of NATO (Washington Treaty) demands members to help the state which is under attack. Denmark considers the latter to be more assertive and saw the EU only as an economic project until the Ukraine war. EU's efforts to establish a defence union still remain a high-end goal, despite its increase in security and defence operations post 2014 Crimean annexation.

Third, the switch from Dexit to cooperation. After the UK exited from Europe, Denmark was predicted to be the next member state to Dexit as the Danes were sensitive about losing their sovereignty and being involved in the EU’s military activities. In the 2014 Eurobarometer survey, on the question of developing into a federation of nation-states, 74 per cent of Danes voted against it. The scenarios in Denmark have changed, from disintegration to solidarity with the Ukraine war.  Another reason to move toward EU integration in terms of defence is the Social Democratic Party’s agenda to expand into the EU to open doors regionally than reaching the transatlantic. Through this vote, Denmark will become part of the EU’s finance and military operations and will also join the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy.

Fourth, the Danes’ support. The vote proportion amongst the Danes in the recent referendum was 67:33 where 67 per cent voted in favour, while 33 per cent opposed the removal of the defence opt-out. Denmark has nine political parties out of which only four are in favour: the Social Democratic government, the far-right Danish People’s Party, the far-right New Right, and the far-left Unity List. The 33 per cent and the opponent of the referendum argue that the EU’s defence is stressed due to administration and joining the EU will increase the military costs in Denmark. They also tend to rely more on NATO than the EU due to the primary objective of NATO being collective defence.

In perspective
First, exploring the nature of social democrats. Historically the Danish government are known for being restrictive when it comes to defence engagements. The Social Democrat Party’s vision is to look beyond Denmark’s boundaries and interest to expand into EU’s defence cooperation. Although the referendum has been voted in favour by the majority, Denmark's government still opts for a cautious approach to hold back the opt-out option to bargain its sovereignty.

Second, the securitization of the Nordic. The first step taken by Sweden and Finland to join NATO has now led Denmark to rethink its defence horizon with the EU’s defence and security policy. Therefore, the Ukraine war has resulted in a shift in the security strategy of the Nordic region from rearmament to regional securitization.

Third, towards defence union. EU’s long-planned goal was to create a united defence. Although NATO has been the core focus for military and security operations, the EU is always perceived as a “foundation and a forum to implement decisions” uniting the EU member states. The Ukraine war and threat from Russia, have resulted in the mending of broken relations and filling of gaps between the EU and its members to form a collective defence EU force.

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